Racing: Englishman aboard for an Arc expedition

John Hammond, a Chantilly-based Briton, trains the favourite for Europe's biggest race.
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The Independent Online
YOU MIGHT just be able to pay for dinner in one of Paris's smarter bistros this Saturday night by betting the next table - and you can be fairly sure they'll be British - that they can't name the last Briton to train an Arc winner. Lammtarra was the latest winner from our side of the Channel, but of course, he really belongs to Dubai and Saeed bin Suroor, while back in 1989, Michael Jarvis prepared Carroll House in Newmarket. The name your neighbours might overlook, perhaps depending on how much wine has been taken, is that of John Hammond.

He might well prefer it that way. Hammond, who was born in Kent but has been resident in Chantilly for a dozen seasons, was 31 when he saddled Suave Dancer to win Europe's most sought-after race in 1991. Now at the other end of his 30s, he has already won more Group One events than most trainers manage in a lifetime, among them the French Derby on his own doorstep, and the Arlington Million, on a different continent. The Irish Derby and Haydock Sprint Cup, twice, also feature on his cv. Who says life begins at 40?

And yet, for all this success, Hammond remains something of a mystery to British punters. They know that he sends runners back to his homeland only rarely, but that when he does, it is a tip in itself. He is well insulated from our media treadmill, and emerges into the spotlight only when, for instance, he is about to saddle the favourite for the Arc.

Montjeu, like Suave Dancer, has already won Hammond the French Derby this season, and unlike Suave Dancer, who was second to Generous at the Curragh, he followed up in the Irish Derby too. Even with Daylami, the runaway King George winner, among his rivals in Sunday's race, most bookies prefer Montjeu's chances.

As a result, the phone at Hammond's yard has either been ringing or engaged for the last two weeks, and it is one time when the horses cannot do his talking for him. He speaks quietly and thoughtfully of his hopes and worries for the weekend, and with as much candour as a naturally reserved man could ever manage. But even so, Montjeu, rather than his trainer, is much his preferred topic of conversation.

The horse, as those relying on him to pay for their travel and refreshments will be pleased to hear, is fit and well. "There are obviously similarities with Suave Dancer," Hammond says, "in that they're both high-class horses, but Suave Dancer was a really good mile and a quarter horse who didn't really stay a mile and a half. That was why he used to hang at the end of his races, because he just used to win them with class. Montjeu has more stamina on his dam's side, and he's a less mature horse than Suave Dancer at this stage, so there's probably more improvement in him."

There is a definite hint of confidence in Hammond's voice that his colt will do himself justice on Sunday, although he points out that "it's his first race against older horses, and there are always one or two fancied ones that don't run up to their form".

Daylami and El Condor Pasa are obvious dangers, but Hammond is also too wise to discount Borgia, trained by the man who once employed him as an assistant, Andre Fabre.

It was a job with Fabre which first brought Hammond to Chantilly, though he did not arrive expecting to stay in France for more than a decade. "There was no master plan, it was just a question of circumstance," he says. "Chantilly is a lovely place to live, and there's actually quite a big English community here that doesn't have anything to do with racing. It's not a unique position to be an Englishman in Chantilly."

During his time with the finest trainer in France - indeed, possibly the world - Hammond watched and learned, and also saw a side of Fabre which is at odds with his stern public image. "He can be a very witty, very funny man," he says. "He's a very original sort of guy, he doesn't follow any trends, quite the opposite. He's also a highly intelligent man who would be a success at whatever he does, which must make him unique among trainers, for a start."

The most important lesson of the many which Hammond learned from Fabre sounds obvious, but is in fact anything but. "He's very big on running horses when they're well, he really emphasised that, and being patient. It was his perception that was so important, looking and seeing. Sometimes you look, and you don't see."

Just now, Hammond likes what he sees when he steps into Montjeu's box. All but the minutest of preparations are complete, and French racegoers can be sure that their champion will uphold Gallic pride. His trainer, though, betrays his English roots when asked what he will do between now and Sunday afternoon. "Pray that nothing goes wrong," he says. Some distinctly Anglo-Saxon embellishments have been deleted.